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This is the sequel to The Rich Are Different, which I reviewed here and which translates the story of Julius Caesar's dictatorship and death, followed by Octavian's rise to power, to the finance houses of New York in the 1920s and '30s. This second volume takes up a few years after the last left off, and follows events equivalent to those which happened in ancient Rome between 23 and 2 BC - or, in the story, between 1949 and the late 1960s. It is long and complex, running over more than 600 pages and with six sections each narrated by a different point of view character: Sam Keller (Agrippa), Alicia (Livia), Cornelius (Augustus), Sebastian (Tiberius), Scott (Iullus Antonius) and finally Vicky Van Zale (Julia). We learn a great deal about all of them, not to mention many others, and there are multiple sub-plots, emotional crises and personal revelations along the way. I'm not going to try to summarise the whole thing, but will instead concentrate on how it works as a (loose) Augustus novel, and as a reception of Roman history.

I will start, though, by mapping out how the characters in this novel match up to their Roman equivalents. I did this as part of my review of the previous book as well, since no-one else seemed to have done so. The previous list can be found here, and I won't repeat the names which are already on it. But these are the ones which are either new to this novel, or played only minor roles in the first one:

Character nameHistorical equivalent
TeresaTerentia (though she is Kevin Daly (Maecenas)'s lodger rather than his wife)
AndrewDrusus the Elder
Rose and Lori SullivanAntonia Major and Minor
Scott SullivanIullus Antonius
Elfrida, Edred and George SullivanCleopatra Selene, Ptolemy Helios and Ptolemy Philadelphus
Elsa ReischmanVipsania
Alfred (Sebastian and Elsa's son) Drusus the Younger
Eric Dieter KellerGaius Caesar
Paul Cornelius KellerLucius Caesar
Samantha KellerAgrippina
Kristin KellerJulia the Younger
Benjamin KellerAgrippa Postumus
Donald ShineSempronius Gracchus (I think, on the grounds that he is the next highest-profile individual after Iullus Antonius to have been involved in the scandal of the Elder Julia)

In addition to the above, there is one quite major character whom I can't quite place, and that is Jake Reischman. He is a 'carry-over' character from the previous novel, but I didn't include him on my last list either, because I was already unclear about exactly who he was supposed to be. In The Rich Are Different, he looks for a while as though he might be Salvidienus Rufus. This is because Paul Van Zale (Julius Caesar) invites him for the summer to his house at Bar Harbor, along with three other late-teenage protégés. Here, Bar Harbor basically represents Apollonia, where four young men of a similar age studied rhetoric and military strategy during the winter of 45-44 BC, while they waited to depart with Caesar on a campaign against the Parthians. Historically, those men were Octavian, Agrippa, Maecenas and Salvidienus Rufus, and in the novel they are the characters who definitely represent the first three of those individuals (Cornelius Van Zale, Sam Keller and Kevin Daly), plus Jake Reischman. So that looks like a good match. But Salvidienus Rufus attempted to betray Octavian to Antony in 40 BC, and was condemned to death by the senate, whereas nothing equivalent happens to Jake Reischman. He remains alive and well and a good friend of Cornelius Van Zale's not only long after that point has passed in the first novel, but also throughout the second novel, too.

In any case, Jake Reischman is only the latest member of a dynasty which we first hear of three generations earlier at the start of the first novel. His great-grandfather is Old Jacob Reischman, who is the only banker in New York that will employ Paul Van Zale in his 20s after Lucius Clyde has disowned him. His grandfather is Max Reischman, who gets rid of Paul again when he takes over the Reischman firm, but does help to arrange a place in another firm for him. His father is Young Jacob Reischman, who is Paul's age and whom he generally likes. And then there is Jake Reischman himself, who is Cornelius' age. Again, this doesn't match up with Salvidienus Rufus, who seems to have come from an obscure family. This is a powerful banking dynasty, and ought to match up with a powerful Roman political dynasty of the first century BC - but I'm blowed if I can figure out which. So Jake Reischman remains resolutely unidentified (at least by me), despite the fact that he plays a pretty major role in this second novel. Annoying!

Anyway, as an Augustus story this novel is quite unusual in choosing to cover his time as a mature emperor at all (even as translated to 1950s-60s New York), but having taken that story on, Howatch's angle is very much the classic one. Like John Williams' novel, Augustus and like the TV movie Imperium: Augustus, it basically deals with the 'problem' of the successful autocrat who never gets his comeuppance by focusing on the disjunction between his public success and his private unhappiness, particularly as it emerges in the context of his failure to produce a male heir and his fraught relationship with his daughter Julia (here, Vicky Van Zale).

For the historical Augustus, not having a direct male heir was a major political problem, because it meant uncertainty as to what would happen to all the power he had accumulated after his death, and he clearly expended a lot of effort in trying to resolve it via dynastic marriages and the promotion or marginalisation of potential candidates. Translated to the world of 20th-century banking, the issue of dynastic succession isn't quite as pressing. Cornelius clearly does want control over who takes over the Van Zale banking corporation, but more important for him are the emotional and social consequences of not fulfilling what he considers to be his appointed role in life as a husband and father. As he himself puts it in the section of the book where he has the narrative voice, "The one nightmare of my life was that everyone would secretly think me pathetic because I had no sons of my own" (p. 204). The root cause of his problems is infertility caused by an episode of the mumps (covered in the previous novel), which has put paid to his dreams of a large family, and in turn made him impotent with his wife Alicia (Livia) because of the emotional fall-out from what he sees as his failure as a man. All of this seemed a really good way to me of translating the fraught succession issue into terms which suited the socially-conservative context of 1950s-60s America.

Cornelius is pretty good at maintaining a public façade of success and even amiability, but Howatch grants us an insiders' view on his family life which shows that he is not simply unhappy about his infertility, but very manipulative and extremely needy. On a couple of occasions we discover that his biggest driver all along has actually been not simply a desire for power, but a desire for attention. After a confrontation with Elfrida Sullivan, Steve Sullivan's daughter (i.e. Cleopatra Selene, Antony's daughter) about his role in Steve's death, he confesses to Alicia (in the throes of an asthma attack) that "it's all a matter of communication, you see... I've got to have power, I've got to communicate, how can I communicate without power? Nobody would take any notice of me... Steve Sullivan... never took any notice but I made him notice. I communicated" (p. 264). Later, the plot of a play written by Kevin Daly (Maecenas) is quite clearly pegged as being essentially the story of both Cornelius' life and Augustus'. It deals with a politician who can only express himself by exercising power, so loses his friends, wife and all personal joys, until he is all alone and has no-one left to even express his isolation to (p. 349). In other words, Cornelius' desperate quest for attention is ultimately self-defeating, and again this is something we see in John Williams and Imperium: Augustus - Augustus as responsible for his own tragic fall into misery.

But the core focus of the novel is on Cornelius' relationship with Vicky (Julia), who suffers the most from his insensitivity and manipulation. She is the strong female character attempting to carve her own path in spite of him that Dinah Slade (Cleopatra) was in the previous novel, though she doesn't have the driving ambition which Dinah had, so she is much less sure of where her path actually leads. The story starts with him scoffing at her ambitions to go to college and insisting that women can only be fulfilled as wives and mothers. But although he does try to push her towards Sam Keller (Agrippa), a marriage arranged entirely by him would seem out of place in mid-20th-century New York. Instead, Vicky chooses her husbands quite voluntarily, and does genuinely love each of them in different ways. Indeed, each of them are in love with her, too, since Howatch discards the ancient stories about Tiberius pining for Vipsania throughout his marriage to Julia. Her Sebastian is in love with Vicky from an early age, though it is a rather stalkerish type of love which later involves what is (in my view) a rape, but which he doesn't recognise as such because he is too busy thinking how happy is he to finally be having sex with her, and which she chooses to to ignore. In any case, each relationship fails, as Sam dies, and she realises that she was only really with Sebastian because she wanted (generic) masculine protection, and so she ends up hanging out at Manhattan nightclubs and causing scandal in the gossip columns.

She then begins an affair with Scott Sullivan (Iullus Antonius - son of Mark Antony and the ring-leader of the historical Julia's alleged circle of lovers) after meeting him on a cruise. In a departure from the historical model, we discover that Cornelius actually really likes Scott, who has been working for the Van Zale banking corporation, and in fact wants to hand the company over to him when he retires. But Scott (who is a very complicated character) manages to cause a rift between them, prompting an emotional debate between Vicky and Cornelius as she tries to persuade her father to forgive him. Here, Cornelius accuses her of 'feminine romanticism' for being so focused on emotional reconciliation between her father and her lover, while she accuses him of 'masculine fantasy' for imagining that Scott will try to change the name of the bank and stop her children (i.e. Cornelius' grandchildren) from working there. In other words, she is arguing for emotional happiness and he for public status and success: much as they also do in Williams' Augustus and Imperium: Augustus.

By the end of the novel, things have deteriorated far further between them. Vicky comes to hold Cornelius responsible for poisoning her mind against her mother Vivienne (Scribonia), causing the deaths long ago of Steve Sullivan, Dinah Slade, Tony Sullivan and Alan Slade (i.e. Antony, Cleopatra, Antyllus and Caesarion), and of course causing Scott's suicide after he is fired for passing Van Zale secrets to Donald Shine. So the basic story of the Julia scandal is in place, but Howatch has been building a story through the novel about the contrast between the emotionally-intelligent Vicky and the utterly screwed-up and shut-down Cornelius, and she clearly wants this to end in Vicky's favour. So Vicky exiles herself from her father's life, rather than the other way round, telling him that she will not see him any more, and leaving him to live out his old age in loneliness and guilt. As she puts it, "I could see his future so clearly. He would live on alone long after all his friends were dead; he would live on knowing that I lived too thought we might never meet; he would survive to a great age for his punishment was not to be death; he was going to have to live with the consequences of what he had done" (p. 659). She then goes off with Sebastian (Tiberius) into a sort of parallel reality which has been built up earlier on in the novel through references to a door into a rose-garden which (apparently) stands for what-might-have-been in T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. It is like a meta-referential acknowledgement that Howatch's character is a literary construct herself, and can thus pass into the world of Eliot's poetry, just at the very point when her narrative seriously diverges from that of the historical Julia.

As in the previous novel, there are lots of in-story references to Roman history, like more direct acknowledgements from the author of her story's roots. There are far too many to list and analyse individually, but I'll give a few particularly strong examples to demonstrate how it works. At one point, Sam Keller (Agrippa), describing Cornelius, says "His delicate classical features might have been sculpted in marble" (p. 63), which is of course how the real Augustus' features inevitably appear to us now. At another point, Sebastian gives Vicky a new translation of Cicero's letters, commenting "they make Cicero so real that you fully expect to see him alive and well and fussing around the Knickerbocker Club. It seems impossible to believe he's not holding a press conference somewhere and thundering about some morally offensive new batch of Wall Street shenanigans." Which is of course exactly what the whole book is doing - bringing ancient Roman characters to life in 20th-century New York. Perhaps the strongest nod of all, though, comes when Vicky calls her last son by Sam, Benjamin Keller, 'Postumus' until she can think of a proper name for him. That is exactly what Julia's last son by Agrippa really was called, for the very good reason that Agrippa died before he was born, and it is the only time I've spotted in either novel that any character is directly given the exact same name as their Roman counterpart, rather than an appropriate equivalent.

But the story's frame of reference isn't restricted to the dialogue between ancient Rome and 20th-century America. Just as the previous novel also played around with references to the 18th century and the British empire, this one too draws on other historical settings, especially to characterise Sebastian (Tiberius) and Scott (Iullus). Sebastian is very introverted (as appropriate for the historical Tiberius), so appears awkward and morose for the first half of the novel, but when he gets to take over the narrative voice we discover that he is actually a very deep and perceptive thinker. He ponders Caesar and Tacitus' attitudes to barbarian peoples, wondering how long the American 'empire' can last, works through his feelings about his family via analogies to Greek tragedy, and feels particularly drawn to king Alfred, who was underestimated but nonetheless became king of England. All of this helps to convey the richness of his internal life and establish him as an intellectual - as indeed he proves to be later in the book when he goes to Cambridge to become an academic (his equivalent of Tiberius' retreat to Rhodes). But it also builds more importantly towards the association between Sebastian and T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, which is all about the relationship between past, present, future and what-might-have-been in a way that Sebastian's wide frame of historical reference neatly reflects. It is he who recommends Eliot's poetry to Vicky, and indeed comes to personify the parallel world which she slips into with him at the end of the novel, making his rich historical canvass no mere window-dressing, but a careful foreshadowing of where he will eventually take Vicky.

Scott's character too is strongly related to a particular work of literature, but in a much more destructive way than Sebastian's. In his section of the novel we learn that Scott feels he has another presence within him, which he understands as being Childe Roland from the poem by Robert Browning. In fact, the likeable, competent 'Scott' is merely a mask for this being, and ceases to exist when he is alone. Just as in the poem Childe Roland is self-destructively obsessed with reaching the Dark Tower, so too Scott is entirely focused on exacting a long-drawn-out revenge on Cornelius for his father, Steve Sullivan's, death. Inevitably, this poisons everything in his life, including his relationship with Vicky. He does in fact fall in love with her in a way he never has with any other woman, but when she tries to persuade him that he is making himself miserable trying to pay a debt of guilt to his father which Steve himself would have wanted him to forget, he knows she is right but can't let go. It is all too inevitable a journey for Scott towards his eventual disgrace and suicide. Meanwhile, alongside the central Childe Roland motif, other points of reference for him are Bede, William of Ockham, Peter Abélard, and T.H. White (famous in particular for his Arthurian novels) - in other words, all medieval or pseudo-medieval. In a world where everyone around him is pseudo-Roman, it helps to add to the sense that he is out of time and place, operating within an entirely different framework from the other characters.

All in all, then, I was extremely impressed with this novel, just as I was with its predecessor. Its approach to the basic Augustus-story at its heart may be more or less conventional, but only within a pretty small pool of novels or screen portrayals which attempt to do this at all. Meanwhile, the translation to the world of New York banking loosens the tie to its historical foundations just enough to give Howatch room to do some interesting and original things with the source-material, while the wide range of historical and literary allusions develop the story considerably further. In fact, that aspect of the book reminded me sometimes of the way Diana Wynne Jones uses similar material, such as the story of Tam Lin in Fire and Hemlock or Donne's poem about a falling star in Howl's Moving Castle. In short, there is rather more to this novel than the family saga story which most of the internet seems to have it down as, and I am looking forward to putting this review on my real-name blog to help balance out that impression.

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Comments

( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
kissmeforlonger
Sep. 1st, 2013 10:35 am (UTC)
I really enjoyed this review.
strange_complex
Sep. 1st, 2013 12:07 pm (UTC)
Thanks! :-) Have you read this one yourself? I remember you saying you'd read The Rich Are Different when I reviewed that one.
kissmeforlonger
Sep. 1st, 2013 12:59 pm (UTC)
Yes, I read a lot of her books in my mid-teens but didn't pick up on any of the historical allusions, despite studying Latin. Gah! It would have made it a lot more interesting. I do remember thinking that Dinah was manipulative, but fab, and Cornelius was impossibly creepy and controlling, for a real person :-)
strange_complex
Sep. 1st, 2013 01:39 pm (UTC)
He certainly is! Though I love the way she uses the shifting first-person perspective to show us the interior world of even the unsympathetic characters. It really makes them three-dimensional - we may not like them much, but we can see where each of them is coming from.
surliminal
Sep. 1st, 2013 10:51 pm (UTC)
I read these years ago too and loved them but completely failed to pick up on the classical allusions too - which as I was studying Latin and Greek at the time seems remarkable, thanks for finally informing me! Must re read I think.
oliviine
Jan. 29th, 2014 10:34 pm (UTC)
Review
Hi, I was hoping to read the Part 1 review of the The Rich Are Different, but I am getting an access denied page on that entry. Can you please advise if the review is posted elsewhere?

I find your analysis of Sins of the Fathers to be excellent and I would love to read your thoughts on the previous book! :)
strange_complex
Jan. 30th, 2014 02:23 pm (UTC)
Re: Review
Hi there - glad you liked the review! What happened with the other one was that I was planning at some point to put it on another blog I keep elsewhere under my real name, so had made it friends-only here to stop it from appearing in two places at once. But I haven't yet got round to porting it over to the other blog yet anyway.

So for now what I've done is to set it back to public again, which means you should be able to read it. The link is here for convenience. I'll probably put it back to friends-only again at some point, once I've got myself in gear to put them up elsewhere, but it won't be for ages, so you have plenty of time to read it for now.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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